Why Do Different Countries Have Different Outlets?

(Last Updated On: October 12, 2021)

If you’ve ever travelled internationally and wanted to charge (or otherwise plug in a device), you probably had to bring some adapters for your gadgetry. You’d think that with so much stuff being made by international companies it would be useful to try and push everyone into using the same standard outlet or plug. Why do different countries have different outlets?

How Many Standard Plugs Are There?

Luckily there aren’t too many different plug/socket types to work with. The American International Trade Administration recognizes 15 different plug/socket types around the world. Each type is assigned a letter of the alphabet; so with 15 types we have outlets of types A through O.

  If you live in North America; you’re probably most familiar with type A and type B outlets. Type A ones have the 2 pins while the type B ones have the third pin on the bottom. This third pin is a grounding pin, it’s meant to protect you in the event of a power surge or malfunction. Which means you shouldn’t be cutting it off. Don’t worry about compatibility–both are normally between 100-127 volts and rated up to 15 amps. That’s why you can stick your 2 prong phone charger into the 3 prong socket you also use your laptop charger for. 

What Makes them Different?

Besides appearance, all other types of outlets have different voltage and ampere ratings. Types C-O all are rated up to 240 volts, generally between 220-240 volts. Some, like type N (used in Brazil and South Africa), are rated from 100-240 volts. 

They’re also generally rated for different amperage. There’s a lot more variation here. India’s commonly used type D plug is rated for 5 amps, while the type N can go up to 20 amps. 

So Why Does Everyone Have Something Different?

When Americans first started developing the modern electric plug, other nations found the American 110 volt standard too inefficient. Germany favored more power transmission with 220 volt plugs–something they kept with the type C and F plugs that are rated between 220 and 240 volts. 

The English developed their own plugs too–through the rest of Europe never adopted theirs as standard (and never ended up with their own universal one). While people started catching on to the idea that a universal standard would probably be helpful, WWII effectively put a stopper on those conversations. 

That’s not to say entities haven’t tried to establish standards. The International Electrotechnical Commision has tried for a long time. In 1986 they unveiled the type N plug, which was intended to be the universal standard. If you remember from earlier, though, the type N is only used in Brazil and South Africa. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for the type N plug in 1986 when it was introduced–Brazil was the first to adopt it and didn’t adopt it until 2007. 

While countries have recognized the need to standardize, Thailand developed the type O plug to standardize within their borders in 2006. There was just too much momentum for everyone’s initial systems. By the time the proposed type N rolled around, it would have just been too much work to make the switch. 

Speaking of electricity, see if you know who exports the most here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.